Audeze LCDi4 in-ear headphones

Headphone listening has always been an important part of my audiophile life. In recent years I've been using at home Audeze's large, open-back, circumaural LCD-X headphones, which I bought after reviewing them for the March 2014 issue; and a pair of small Ultimate Ears 18 Pro in-ear monitors, which provide much better isolation on my subway commute to Stereophile's offices in Manhattan. I was intrigued by Audeze's iSine in-ear models, which were introduced in November 2016 and are unique in using planar-magnetic drive-units mounted outside the ear. I thought about reviewing a pair of the affordable iSines, but before I could get around to it, I heard that Audeze was to launch a cost-no-object version, the LCDi4, priced at a substantial $2495/pair. Aspiration got the better of frugality, and I asked for a pair to review.

Technology
The LCDi4s superficially resemble the iSines in having a fair-sized, roughly hexagonal, shallow housing, in this case made of magnesium, enclosing a flat, magnetically driven diaphragm. This is coupled to the user's ear canal with a tapered tube, over which is fitted a rubber tip to provide the necessary seal. The LCDi4s are supplied with a variety of different-sized eartips, along with vestigial clips that fit over and behind the pinnae to secure the fit. Unlike the iSines, which have a DAC chip in the cable and are intended to be connected to an iPhone's Lightning connector, the LCDi4s come with a braided 1.2m cable made of silver-plated OCC copper with Kevlar threads and fitted with a conventional 3.5mm stereo plug. Both the earpieces and the cable connectors are marked L and R, so there is no confusion connecting them.

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The 30mm drive-unit is derived from that used in Audeze's LCD-4 circumaural headphone, and uses a plastic film just 0.5µm thick. A specialized vacuum-deposition process slowly builds a malleable metal layer on the film to act as the voice-coil. This Nano-scale Uniforce diaphragm is energized by Audeze's Fluxor array of neodymium magnets. The LCDi4s are assembled in Audeze's factory in Orange County, California, and in the first part of a video shot by our editorial coordinator and videographer Jana Dagdagan and posted to our website, you can watch how the headphones are made, followed by the testing, burn-in, and packaging. (The narration is by Sankar Thiagasamudram, Audeze's founder and CEO.) In the second part of the video you can watch me unbox the LCDi4s in the Stereophile office and give them a first listen.

The LCDi4s come packed in a classy leather and plastic box, with a leather travel case, the cable, a 3.5mm-to-¼" adapter, a USB stick with the user guides for Audeze's LCD and iSine models (but, peculiarly, not the LCDi4), a certificate of ownership, and a variety of rubber eartips and clips. Because my ear canals are larger in diameter than average, I needed to use the largest rubber tips to get a good seal.

Listening
I started my auditioning of the LCDi4s in the magazine's office with the Pass Laboratories HPA-1 amplifier (our "Headphone Product of 2017"), and with my 160GB iPod set to Shuffle. With Robert Silverman's performance of Liszt's Piano Sonata in b (16-bit/44.1kHz AIFF ripped from CD, Stereophile STPH008-2), the combination of low-frequency clarity and bass extension was unexpected for in-ear headphones. The Liszt was followed by "Flamenco Sketches," from Miles Davis's Kind of Blue (16/44.1 ALAC ripped from CD, Columbia Mastersound CK 52801), which begins with that familiar falling-fifth motif on Paul Chambers's double bass; the differences in character between John Coltrane's tenor sax and Cannonball Adderley's alto were delineated with superb clarity. Similarly, such details as the sudden "splash" of the spring-reverb unit in the middle of "Dream Brother," from Jeff Buckley's posthumous Mystery White Boy: Live '95–'96 (16/44.1 ALAC ripped from CD, Columbia 4982652), sounded palpably correct. (Back in the 1970s, I built a reverb unit using a Hammond organ spring unit I found in a dumpster outside a studio, and am well familiar with the "splash" you got when you accidentally knocked it.)

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The iPod's Shuffle mode followed Buckley with pianist Angela Hewitt performing the Prelude in e-flat from J.S. Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1 (16/44.1 ALAC from CD, Hyperion CDA66714/4). Hewitt's appropriately delicate playing was reproduced by the Audeze 'phones with space between the notes. The same thing was true with "The Horses," from Rickie Lee Jones's Flying Cowboys (16/44.1 ALAC file, Geffen), a recording of deliciously wide dynamic range produced by the late Walter Becker, of Steely Dan.

It was time to finish listening for pleasure and leave the office. Listening to the Audeze LCDi4s on the subway with my PonoPlayer proved fruitless: though they played acceptably loud with the iPhone, the headphones offer almost no isolation from external sounds. But when I got home, I plugged the LCDi4s into the 3.5mm output jack of Ayre Acoustics' QX-5 Twenty D/A processor, fed it S/PDIF data from NAD's M50.2 server (also reviewed in this issue), and settled down to some critical listening.

COMPANY INFO
Audeze LLC
3412 S. Susan Street
Santa Ana, CA 92704
(714) 581-8010
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
DougM's picture

Does Nordost make a $1500 cable to improve these earbuds when plugged into your IPhone? Once again, this is a great way to get kids with their disposable Sony or Apple earbuds interested in quality audio, introduce them to $2500 earbuds. I'm sure they can afford them if they save their salary from McDonalds or Pizza Hut. Do you people live in Trump tower? Do you really understand at all how real people live? I don't even know what else to say. I hate earbuds anyway. I'll keep my classic Sennheiser HD424s.
The Emperor has no clothes!

DaleC's picture

How real people live? Like the ones that drop $30k on a bass boat.... or $10k on Sea Doo... or $20k on a Harley... or $25k on an off road buggy???? Drive through middle class neighborhoods and you will see numerous examples of all those things. None of which are used anywhere nearly as often as these earphones.

Cost is relative, but audio is a pretty inexpensive hobby compared to those of "real people".

Priaptor's picture

Your assumption (an absurd one at that) is that Audeze's intention is to try to lure "kids" for this premier product that was built not to be used primarily with an iPhone but only as a secondary use. In fact, the first units didn't even include their iPhone cipher cable because that was not their market. In case you haven't noticed they sell much cheaper IEMs which are meant for iPhones.

Enjoy you Senns and try to curtail your wealth envy and anger as it tightens those coronaries.

tonykaz's picture

Audeze transducer designs seem to have achieved a "Gold Standard" level of acceptance, good for them.

I've very much wanted to love Audeze headphones but couldn't, they're too darn heavy, they feel like a motorcycle helmet.

Now I'm thinking that our JA is on to something here, these ( liddle ) Audeze devices could be an option to wearing 300+ gram headphones.

Or, maybe, these low ( ambient noise isolation ) $2,500 IEMs are a Solution to a Problem that doesn't exist. ( at least for me )

I'd like to try a pair of these, for a few weeks, if I could. ( no financial risk ) Could they be a useful option to regular, over the head Headphones?

Tony in Michigan

ps. our Mr.JA seems to be as qualified a Reviewer as is humanly possible. He's the originator of the music he uses to evaluate and knows how to technically evaluate. I'll hope and presume he owns Ears functioning to high levels.

ps.2 folks wearing these devices look rather Goth,hmm, seems like a "in the privacy of one's home" type of device.

dalethorn's picture

I have found that, unlike electrostatic headphones, the full-size planars struggle to present a neutral and extended treble. The three that I've tried, up to the $1500 mark, fell far short of the kind of detail that certain dynamic headphones (Focal Elear, Beyer T1, etc.) present. Perhaps the small size of this mini-planar can overcome the limitations of its big brothers, or, perhaps there's another technology here besides ordinary planar drivers.

DougM's picture

Mu comments weren't so much directed at Audeze, but at the Stereophile staff and the audio world in general, who are always editorializing about how to get more people interested in quality audio. The answer is not with $2500 earphones. Thirty percent of our country (that's nearly one third) earn less than $25k a year. They can no more afford a boat or a Harley than a pair of $2500 earbuds. They struggle just to pay their rent. They would have to save for a long time, or go into debt, just to afford a $1000-$1500 audio system. If you want to get more people into audio, then show them how they can assemble a great sounding system with under $500 amps, CD players (or DACs), and speakers, for a total cost of $1500 or less. The British hi-fi magazines like What Hi-Fi cover equipment like this all the time, and therefore generate more interest in audio equipment from the general public than Stereophile or TAS, who seem to want to cater to the one percent.

Glotz's picture

None of these products are marketed to people with incomes at the $25k mark, nor is the review written to that audience. Most of the people in that income bracket aren't concerned with better quality audio, or even listen to music on a regular basis outside of their low-priced, ear bud consumption..

Stereophile is catering to the high-end of the market. They review, and have reviewed, lower-priced gear of all types. While they need to focus on lower-priced equipment as they have more in the past, reviews like this are about the best of the best. I know their sister publications offer more in reasonably-priced headphone reviews.

You assume the question if the magazine wants to get more people into audio, Stereophile is what they should read. I don't think that is an appropriate question, without some important qualifiers. Stereophile is what one reads when the best in audio is desired. The 'best' has many connotations by a variety of people. What's the best value (as a reader)? I'm not sure that is this magazine's intent.

dalethorn's picture

Just where are those under-$25k earners going to be playing those audiophile speakers at audiophile volume levels? Middle of the day only? What about nighttime? I can't do it, and I'm well above the $25k mark.

DaleC's picture

If you were addressing the lower third of income earners, you should have said so, but you said "real people". By your own definition, 70% of Americans are not "real people".

I doubt very seriously the lower third of American wage earners read this site. If they are buying audiophile gear, their priorities are out of whack.

Regarding low cost audio, there are numerous articles in that vein. Also, a person can read these articles to learn about audio and then buy used gear. That is what I do.

Your first post, along with your "1%" and "cork sniffer" comments expose the wealth envy referred to by other commenters in this thread. I am a looong way from the 1%, as is almost everyone on this site, but these articles interest me and these phones are not out of the question, especially if I ever resume regular air travel for my job.

ok's picture

Audio press has never been about mere buying cheap and going home. Hadn’t this always been the case it would have long vanished for lack of continuing interest and weary anticipation of next generation's newbies – that lately use to never come..

tonykaz's picture

..., I never liked the term.

Still, all of us manufacturing people build for folks with ability to spend.

It takes incomes above $60,000 to live here in the USA, hmm, that is $30 per hour.

Preferably more than one income, per household.

Then comes the expenses :
Housing,
Transportation,
Gourmand Dining,
Branded Clothes from the Mall ( and plenty of them,phew ),
$100 Tickets to Live Events/ea.,
Dog stuff,
Children Stuff,
Flat Screen 4k 56" TVs,
Bass Boats with two 150hp. 4 Stroke Honda Motors,
Honda's New&Improved Gold Wing Motorcycle,
the Vacation to a poor, Caribbean Island to distribute used ( but still useful ) eye glasses to the "genuinely-needy" ( taking the kids, of course ).

Ca-ching, life here in the $tate$ is expen$ive.

$7.20 per hr. at Taco Bell ?, forgetaboutit !

The stuff reviewed by Stereophile is cheap if you're single, compared to the committed life of "viable" young married folks!

Single Men can indulge themselves with Audio luxuries, even owning Vinyl stuff ( with all it's monetary requirements ), as long as they don't buy Audi S8 Cars, Rolex Watches, GQ Clothes for dates with "high maintenance" types, table cloth & candlelight dinners at the 4 -Seasons and all the rest of the stuff like.....

Conversely:

Reading & Watching Steve Guttenberg and Herb Reichert is about the wonderful wandering life they live as they meander off-course, following their curiosities, filling their apartments with gear reviewed/to-be-reviewed and gear reviewed ages ago ( now owned but mostly unused ) , far-too valuable to simply let-go-of, needing to be 'Endowed' to some youthful & worthy Aspirant. Who inherited Harry Pierson's stuff?

I wonder how many of us are wanna-be or Armchair Reviewers, just hoping for a few days in NY,NY to; visit those remaining Audio Shops that are still choo'ching along, just like the 1970s but without the crowds of customers ?

For us living in Fly-over country, under geographical "house arrest", Stereophile has become invaluable in providing useful knowledge and confidence building when purchasing a well researched audio item ( New from a Retailer or Used on eBay ), there probably isn't a more reliable source of Audio Information available anywhere.

I got the feeling that this magazine is the best we're gonna get, short of attending an RMAF ( next time it comes along ).

Tony in Michigan

ednazarko's picture

When I first saw the picture of these I thought that they were a steam punk thing - a design trick and not an actual unique driver system.

Intrigued by the listening comments. I wondered if getting the drivers out there would expand the soundstage all by itself. But I've learned from painful (literally) experience that for in-ear, I need to stick with CIEMs - with regular IEMs I have a choice between a good seal and pain after an hour or two, or comfort for long listening sessions but crappy seal (and therefore compromised sound.)

DougM's picture

I live in a small (under 400 sq. ft.) studio apartment, and I can play CDs after midnight with no complaints from my neighbors. A good pair of speakers doesn't have to be played at deafening levels to sound good. If yours do, then you need new speakers. And you need earplugs, or you're going to be suffering from tinnitus and hearing loss quite soon.
Anymore corksniffers want to gang up against me?
If you want to attract new readers, and new audiophiles, then you need to cover quality equipment at all price levels.
Anyone remember Bob Reina (RIP) and Stephen Mejias?

dalethorn's picture

Would realistic sound levels, i.e. "audiophile" sound levels, be considered deafening sound levels?

DougM's picture

According to accepted standards, the human ear can only tolerate 91db for two hours, 94db for one hour, 97db for 1/2 hour, and 100db for fifteen minutes before permanent damage ensues.
All these kids with their earbuds blasting are going to be sorry in the coming years. According to experts, this is something even symphony players have to worry about.

dalethorn's picture

Would you be able to play your speakers at audiophile/realistic volume levels late at night, where those volume levels would compare to a symphonic attendee sitting in the first few rows? If not, how much lower would you have to play them?

Mihalis's picture

The LCDi4 sound excellent, in some ways I prefer them to the LCD4. However QC is zero: my pair arrived with all sorts of blemishes and imperfections on both sides of the titanium shells that simply should not have been accepted. Add the many differences in measurements of LCD4s as per Innerfidelity and one has to wonder is there is any QC over there. M.

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